Selfies and citizenship: Examining the idea of nationhood in the era of social media boom

The internet, social media and the selfie have transformed our lives in the past two decades in ways it might have been impossible to imagine before 2000. They have transformed social relationships, as well as notions like love, friendship and personal memory, which were taken to be stable and fully understood. As their implications grow larger, we find them intruding into political spaces, as well as concepts such as nationhood and citizenship. In this piece, the author speculates and examines some of these changes.

The modern nation, as Benedict Anderson proposed (Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism), was made possible only by the arrival of the print medium, namely the novel and the newspaper. A ‘nation’ as it is understood in the modern world is not identical to a ‘country’, which merely needs to have its boundaries defined and a state ruling it, but depends on a public collectively imagining themselves as constituting a community. The novel and the newspaper are essential to nationhood because they create a sense of historical time through which the imagined community is moving. In India, the sense of nationhood was evidenced first in the colonial cities – especially Calcutta, then the seat of British power – where printing presses first appeared.

Indian nationalism then gained ground in other cities where people could have access to novels and newspapers, both in Indian languages and English. If one retrospectively attributes ‘nationalist’ feelings to heroes like Tipu Sultan or Shivaji today, it would be inaccurate, since the sense of a national community could only gain ground through the print medium, which reached people across the geographic divide and make them simultaneously feel kinship with each other. It follows from this that nationalism initially affected only the educated classes who could read the newspaper and the novel. It may also be surmised that the sense of belonging to a national community can hardly be uniform among the public. To regard only its geographic distribution, it will likely fade far away from the mainstream; those living in isolated pockets like adivasis and tribals, or those in the far corners will feel less of it.

 Selfies and citizenship: Examining the idea of nationhood in the era of social media boom

Representational image. Pixabay

Everyone having a vote evidently does not make all Indians participate equally in nationhood. Immanuel Wallerstein proposed that there were three effective ways in which nationhood could be inculcated in a wide public: public education through state-owned schools, compulsory military service and public functions. It may be imagined from the fact that none of the above three have prevalence or significance in India that a strong sense of nationhood is felt by only a relatively small section of the public.

If it is those who have had some education who, by and large, still remain nationhood’s prime movers, from their viewpoint it may be surmised that family pasts will be recollected as strands in national history: “That was the year in which the Quit India Movement began” or “We moved house when the anti-Hindi agitation under Lal Bahadur Shastri was under way.” My own feelings at the debacle of the Sino-Indian War (when I was eight years old) are still vivid in my memory, the sense of national betrayal widely shared. Personal or family narratives as a constituent part of national history would not have been possible without the newspaper or the novel, which together made the association – although mainstream cinema also linked personal stories to national history. Personal histories were themselves documented in people’s lives by photographs.

The selfie’s most obvious cultural precursor was the personal or family photograph. An aspect noted about the family photograph was that its visual quality did not matter. What was important was who took it, on what occasion and when; what people felt about the pictures was much more important than what they ‘meant’ individually. It was equally important that the pictures were shown to other people who could use them to picture events they were not present at, thus situating themselves within a social continuum of some sort. Social context is not often detected in them, but it is covertly present in personal or family photographs. Wedding pictures (later supplanted by the video) are records of social gatherings, and implicit connections with wider events are inevitably made by those to whom they are shown. Visitors looking at pictures were a ritual that most people went through in the homes of their acquaintances.

If there is a fundamental political change the internet made, it lies in obscuring the grand narrative of history. Where the central historical events of the 20th Century (World War I and II, the rise and fall of Communism, colonial wars and former colonies becoming independent, etc) are easy to name, it is difficult to do likewise with this century, and the presence of the internet makes the task more confusing. In India, history was carried forward by a relatively small number of newspapers and writers, and citizens located themselves in national life through their reportage and opinions. Ssocial media and ‘fake news’ have compounded the effect of the internet; current history no longer exists as fact.

Communication through social networking websites differs from e-mail in important ways. E-mail replicates letter writing in being considered communication – thoughts are generally fully articulated as they are in letters, and the attachment – a document or a picture – is like something enclosed with the letter. Communication on Facebook is different and imitates an actual conversation; people can say unconsidered things without much thought, and retract them subsequently as they do in conversation. A thoughtless insult or swear word is difficult to imagine in a letter, but natural on Facebook. Verbal conversation is not communication in the way a letter is, and where a letter might reflect upon life, conversation is integral to it. Social networking, though it can be used for considered communication like email, is hence more a substitute for living physically in the world, and a selfie is like a person’s presence. Unlike a photograph, which is a record, a selfie does not replace personal memory.

Social media platforms, tweets and selfies are vehicles for activism of all kinds, and often the bearers of strong nationalist sentiments, and here we have a seeming contradiction. Nationhood depends upon the sense of a shared past and, hence, personal memory tied to a common past, but social networking and selfies are largely tied to immediate impulses. Politicians use social networking in a big way and put out selfies. The apparent purpose is to keep their constituencies in a state of political excitement and influence sentiments. But if tweets and posts on Facebook awaken nationalist sentiments, how is the sense of nationhood created by the newspaper and the novel different from the nationalist sentiments awakened by a tweet, or a selfie with a political leader who commands a large following?

The nation, as created by the print medium enabled people across a wide geographical territory to experience historical time together, thus imagining themselves a community, and created nationalism based on inclusion rather than exclusion – because it nurtured kinships rather than antagonisms. This is substantiated by the general goodwill Indians felt even towards the departing British, despite the latter’s horrendous doings in India. The nationalism fostered by Facebook, the tweet and the selfie is apparently of a different order. It would take more investigation to establish this, but the stimuli to which tweet/selfie nationalism responds are similar to technologically mediated sporting events that also awaken fierce loyalties and antagonisms, explained as ‘ritual participation’ by media pundits.

An individual’s desire for cultural identity can be a possible motivation for being a sports fan, and just as sports fans actively ritualize their sports consumption activities to acquire and maintain cultural identities, so do ‘political fans’ through emblems and rallies. The way television and social media generate political enthusiasm it is not different from the way the telecasting of an IPL match generates sporting excitement. Sporting rivalries are violent and football fan violence often leads to deaths, as with political rivalries. Political players are also conducting themselves as gladiators might, and bets are placed on elections. The ‘players’ in the ‘arena’ are conscious of the spectators whose hopes they represent. Defections are like the transfer of sporting stars from one club to another. Most importantly, ‘ideology’ in political contests today is increasingly like sport slogans, repeated time and again to announce affinity with one group or another; the paucity of debate among ‘ideologies’ substantiates it. The difference may be that in sport, mobilising a fan following depends upon performance and is secondary to it, while in the political arena mobilising a fan following is performance.

The question that one must evidently put at the conclusion of this article pertains to the relationship between social networking and what is happening in politics, which is a contest over the nation. My proposition here is that the ‘sporting’ excitement generated in the political arena would not have been possible without the immediacy, the sense of living only in the present provided by social media platforms. Where being a ‘citizen’ meant locating oneself in the continuum of national history, being nationalistic (rather than a ‘citizen’) means becoming a fan of a political group; there is no evidence that one group is more ‘for the nation’ than another — although each group imagines the nation differently. Since the nation is a community nurtured over generations of history and depends on the sense of nationhood gradually permeating every part of the public, the current technology-mediated excitement over conflicting approaches to the Indian nation trivialises it and throws doubt on its stability as a cherished notion.

MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016)

Updated Date: May 31, 2018 20:10:46 IST